By IRC Round Robin
Submitted March 25, 1998
Summary: We return to the Old West to see how the Lone Rider came to be … and how he met the love of his life. Another story in the continuing series, "The SoulMates Chronicles," in which HG Wells traces the souls of our favorite couple through time.
An IRC Round Robin Fanfic by Lansbury (Lansbury1@aol.com), ChiefPam (firstname.lastname@example.org), Ckgroupie (NKWolke@t-online.de), Zoomway (email@example.com), ChrisM^ (firstname.lastname@example.org), Eraygun (Eraygun@aol.com), CrystalW (JCWimmer@aol.com), AMCiotola (AMCiotola@aol.com) and Chrispat (Cp13607@aol.com)
H. G. Wells stepped out of his Time Machine and looked down at his black suit covered in dust. He took his handkerchief out of his pocket and began to wipe himself free of the brownish red dirt. He walked through the solarium which housed his Time Machine and into the main house. He was very excited about documenting his latest time travel to the past. A smile lingered on his lips as he moved into the library and walked over to his desk. He was always eager to capture on paper the events at his journey's end and now was no exception. He sat in his chair and unlocked the middle drawer. Taking out a black journal, he lovingly thumbed through the pages and mumbled words of approval to himself until he came to a blank page. Picking up his pencil he began … "I, H. G. Wells, have once again traced the celestial spirits of Lois Lane and Clark Kent, who I first met in the year 1996. At that first meeting, I was completely taken and enthralled by their strong essences. It was only on my returning to the future that I received as a gift a device which I have named Soul Tracker. The Soul Tracker is remarkable because it not only locks onto the energies emitted by a soul but also has the ability to record the events of what is happening to the bodies these souls occupy.
This gift was given to me by a fellow inventor whom, might I now add, happened to be one of the couple's descendants. I always felt he secretly wanted me to chronicle their souls through time and I am pleased to record my latest quest. I will be using the recordings from the Soul Tracker and my own personal observations to describe my next venture which took me to the growing western town of Candelero, Texas, in the year 1885 … <ChiefPam>
Luisa "Lulu" McCoy walked into the telegraph office and stopped short, literally stunned by the sight of such a gorgeous man. It had been an ordinary day up until that point, with no indication of momentous upheavals to come. With one look at the stranger's face, however, Lulu felt a strange certainty that her life had just changed irrevocably. Gradually, she came back to awareness of her surroundings and blushed to realize she'd been standing, stock still, just inside the telegraph office door. The telegraph operator who'd so enraptured her didn't appear to have even noticed her, which annoyed rather than relieved her. She moved forward, trying to return to normal, and he looked up.
He stared, caught for a second with his mouth half-open, and Lulu felt warmed all over by his appreciative gaze. Her lips curled into a smug half-smile before she could control herself.
He blushed. "Yes, miss, may I help you?" Jefferson Higheagle struggled to regain control. He didn't know what had come over him. He'd seen many beautiful women, and none of them had ever touched his heart. So why should this woman be any different?
"Hello," Lulu responded softly, ignoring his question. She no longer had any idea what had brought her into the telegraph office, nor any interest in remembering. She drank in the details of his face — the warm brown eyes, the cute wire-rim glasses, the full lips, the lock of dark hair that fell forward onto his brow.
Almost of its own volition, her hand reached forward to brush the hair off his forehead. She checked its motion in mid-reach, and pulled off her riding gauntlet instead, offering her hand for a handshake. "My name's Lulu McCoy, what's yours?"
"Jeff," he replied, automatically offering the most intimate form of his name, and immediately realizing how inappropriate that was. "Higheagle, I mean, Jefferson Higheagle. Well, Thomas Jefferson Higheagle, actually … " He stopped, hopelessly entangled, and then gave it up for a lost cause. "I'm, ah, new in town." He took her hand and felt a tingle that raced up his arm to the back of his skull.
"Mm, I thought so … " Gradually, Lulu started to come out of her spell, and realize just how forward she was being with a strange man. She tried to gather her composure. "What, ah, brought you to town?"
"Oh, business," Jefferson replied. "I saw the ad for the position, and I wanted a job where I could write … " He wondered, as he said it, why he would blurt out his dream, but the look of interest and respect on her face reassured him.
"You write? That's fascinating … " She leaned forward, but at that moment, the office door opened again and an older man entered the office.
"Morning, Miss Lulu. And how are you this fine day?"
She smiled at the newcomer. "I'm fine, Reverend, thank you. Mother said to tell you that she'd be by later with some flowers for the church."
"Well, well, now that's mighty nice of her. Your parents must be the nicest folks in town."
Lulu could feel herself blushing a little, but she accepted the compliment graciously enough, and turned to introduce Reverend LeBlanc to the new telegraph operator.
The town's new preacher was an interesting character. Her father said that he just knew that the man must have had a checkered past, but her mother was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt.
"After all, Lulu, dear," her mother had told her, "whatever he might have done in the past, he's a man of the cloth now, so we owe him that much."
"I didn't mean to interrupt your business, Miss Lulu," he said now, gallantly enough. "I just stopped by to see if a package I was expecting has come in yet."
"From Sante Fe?" Jeff asked.
"Yes, that's it."
"Yes, sir, it arrived on the train this morning. I'll get it for you."
Lulu and the preacher were left standing by the counter, smiling at one another in the way near strangers will do when they've suddenly been left with nothing to say. Both were relieved when Jeff returned, carrying a large box. Lulu couldn't help but admire how strong he looked.
"Will you need some help with that, Reverend?"
"If you could just put it in the buggy for me, son, I would appreciate it."
The three of them walked outside, and Jeff deposited the box in the back of the buggy, then turned to the preacher. "You look kind of familiar, sir. Were you ever on a riverboat called the Mississippi Queen?"
Lulu watched fascinated as the preacher turned several shades of red. She didn't know a person's eyes could bug out that far. "Well, I, uh … that is, I don't think so, son. Why do you ask?"
"Oh, no reason," Jeff said soothingly. "I guess I was mistaken."
"It was probably the light out here, Reverend," Lulu added coyly. "The sun was probably in his eyes … or something."
"Uh, yeah," LeBlanc agreed, shakily. "Well, I'll be seeing y'all." He climbed in the buggy and left rather faster than was safe for the town's pedestrians.
Grinning, Jeff turned to see Lulu giggling. She was more fascinating with each passing moment. They stood there, in the street, just staring at one another. Finally, it dawned on Jeff that people were beginning to notice them.
"Well, Miss McCoy, didn't you want something in the office?"
Yes, you, she thought, but didn't say it out loud. "Oh, yes, my father wanted me to send a telegram for him."
"Of course, miss. If you'll just step inside, I'll help you with that." And, he thought, I wish I had the nerve to ask you out.
Suddenly there was the sound of loud, yelling voices and galloping horses at the end of the street. Jeff and Lulu turned around and watched a crowd of cowboys riding into town. They didn't slow their pace and paid no attention to the people walking in the street. Dust whirled around and covered anyone who was careless enough to stay nearby.
Jeff saw a young mother drag her child out of harm's away, just before the child would have been trampled by the horses.
"Who is *this*?" he exclaimed.
Lulu shrugged. "It's Judd Lucas. He's the richest man in town and as you see," she pointed to the yelling cowboys, "he behaves as if he owns it."
Jeff watched the man who was riding a little ahead of the crowd. He was tall, about forty, and wearing a black hat. At first sight, not very remarkable in his exterior . But then he saw his eyes.
These were not just the eyes of an arrogant man. Here was pure evil.
Jeff stepped slightly closer to Lulu, although she didn't appear to need any protecting. She had pulled herself up to her full height, and was attempting to get Judd Lucas's attention as he rode by. He wondered momentarily if he should warn her, then decided that she most likely knew more about the town than he did.
He observed her as she took off with confident strides towards the man that had him worried. She made her way through the crowd and stopped before Lucas's horse.
Lucas looked down at the remarkable woman who had approached him with such grace, and immediately removed his black hat. He dismounted quickly and efficiently, and passed his reins to what appeared to be a servant who had appeared out of nowhere. Lucas thanked the older, grey haired man, and the servant nodded in brief acknowledgement before leading the mount away.
"You haven't been responding to my request for a meeting, Mr. Lucas. The town has a right to know what your plans are for the land you've purchased, and it's my responsibility to write about them. I need an interview." Lulu's voice was loud enough to carry the distance back to Jeff, and he found himself beginning to approach the discussion, very much against his will.
"Well, Miss Lulu, if I'd known how pretty you'd gotten since the last time I saw you, I most certainly would have rearranged my schedule earlier. That fancy school up in Austin really made some changes. You're all grown up now, not the little tomboy in pigtails who used to ride out by my ranch looking for adventure," he said, leering slightly. "And I would love to speak with you regarding my plans for the land I've so recently acquired." His voice was smooth, too smooth, and it made Jeff's skin crawl.
Lulu took a slight step back. She was not really offended by the man's manner, but his familiarity with her did make her slightly uncomfortable. She caught herself just as she backed into the telegraph operator, and was briefly surprised that he had followed her. She stepped away from him, and positioned herself between the two men. Jeff, realizing that he didn't belong there, did take a step back from Lulu to let her do her job.
She decided that this was as good a time as any to press the issue, and she wished to use the townsfolk who were observing them as witnesses. "So, when will you allow me to interview you?"
"There's no time like the present," he told her. He reached out his arm for her, and looking around once more she decided to take it. She allowed him to lead her into the cafe at the end of the street, oblivious to Jeff standing on the street with a forlorn expression on his face as the crowd dispersed around him.
Jeff was still watching the door to the cafe when Judd Lucas left alone. He debated for a moment, then decided that Luisa had wanted to send a telegraph, and he had a perfectly good excuse to see her. He crossed the road and entered the cafe to find her sorting her notes, and clarifying her thoughts on paper with a well-used lead pencil. He approached her carefully, still remembering how she had jumped when she had backed into him.
She looked up at him as he came near. "I got it," she told him, eager to share her excitement. "He gave me a full outline of his development plans for the town. He's putting in a full size store, and even building a new school at his own expense.
Jeff sighed as he looked into her wide brown eyes. She appeared to believe that this man had honest intentions, and while he had no good reason, he just didn't feel that this was the case. He didn't trust Lucas, and nothing she could say would change that.
"His plans sound pretty impressive, Miss McCoy," Jeff said after a few moments of thoughtful silence. He tried to sound admiring or at least noncommittal about Lucas's plans but he couldn't completely suppress his skepticism and some of it surfaced as he spoke.
Hearing that trace of doubt in Jeff's voice Lulu studied his face carefully. "They would be, *if* you believe him." she replied as their eyes met.
Jeff nodded. "But I don't quite understand what's going on here. Why did you interview him? Do you *work* for the local paper?"
"Nope, I don't work for it, I own it. I'm the editor-in-chief of the Candelero Gazette, the finest newspaper in Dry Creek County."
"That's because it's the only newspaper in Dry Creek County," a tall auburn-haired woman drawled from behind the counter in the restaurant.
"No one asked for your comments, Kitty."
"I know. That's why it's so fun to give them, Lulu." As she spoke Kitty strolled from behind the counter and joined Jeff and Lulu. "So," she said as she eyed Jeff up and down like a prime steer at auction. "You must be the new Western Union man."
Jeff blushed slightly. "Yes ma'am, I'm Jefferson Higheagle."
"Kitty Richmond," the woman said in reply. "We'll be seeing a lot of each other. Your contract with the company calls for you to have your meals here."
"Poor man," Lulu mumbled.
Jeff looked at Lulu and saw she was a little put out by that last remark of Kitty's. "Yes ma'am, I know what my contract says. I reckon we will come in contact across the cafe counter at that." He looked at her and saw a gleam appear in her eye.
Kitty licked her lips. "Maybe I could fix up something special for you. All you have to do is tell me what you prefer."
Jeff didn't hesitate. "I prefer the company of you, Miss McCoy." He couldn't believe he was hearing those words come out of his own mouth.
Lulu's head shot up and she saw he was staring at her. "Really, Mr. Higheagle, for a man who just came to this town you are being very forward."
Jeff looked taken aback by the remark but didn't let it sway him from forging on. "Well, would you … one evening soon … do me the honor of joining me for supper here at Kitty's Cafe? I think we could find something to talk about."
Kitty turned on her heel and headed back towards the kitchen. She stopped and gave Lulu a wicked smile. "Yes, Lulu take him up on it. I would love to fix you something to eat."
Lulu came closer to Jeff. "Since you're new in town, why don't you come to my parents' home for supper this evening?"
"I accept," he replied. "I'd better get back to the telegraph. Someone may need to send something out."
He nodded at both women and quickly left the cafe. He wanted to make a quick getaway before Miss Lulu had a chance to reconsider her invitation.
A fortyish bespectacled man seated at a nearby table glanced up and watched the young man leave, smiled, and went back to scribbling some notes.
"Well, well," one of Lucas's dusty desperadoes commented. "Ain't we just the best turned out at the fancy dress ball."
The older man looked up. "Are you addressing me?"
The ranch hand slammed his palm on the table. "No, I ain't 'addressing'. I can't afford the postage on a fancy package like you."
"Fancy package? Oh, oh quite, yes, very humorous."
"Lookee, Hank," the grubby man said. "This is the palest piece of pork I ever laid eyes on."
Another man, equally unresplendent, stepped forward. "Pork with them fancy panties."
The older man smiled. "I did get very tipsy in Liverpool once and put a crown roast on my head. It was terrible greasy of course, and so slid down around my neck. I looked rather like Queen Victoria — "
"Shut yer pie hole, mister!" Hank commanded.
The older man adjusted his glasses. "Sorry. I guess I get a bit verbose on occasion. The hazards of a writing career."
Lulu quickly stepped forward. "So, a writer, how *fascinating* . Maybe you'd like to visit the newspaper office."
"That would be splendid," he said, rising to his feet, only to feel a heavy hand restraining him.
"We ain't done with this one, Miss Lulu. " Hank grinned. His teeth, those that were left, were stained brown by chewing tobacco.
Suddenly Kitty stepped back into the dining hall. "You boys are wasting your time with that duded up banker when I would kill for a dance," she said, affecting a pouty tone.
Lulu sighed with relief. "I owe you, Kitty," she whispered.
"Don't think I won't collect," Kitty replied flatly.
Lulu escorted the befuddled gentleman from the cafe just as the pianola began playing 'Buffalo Gals'.
"I'm afraid I was causing trouble without meaning to — Miss Lulu was it?"
"You've just got a peculiar hitch in your getalong, stranger, and sometimes that's all it takes in Candelero."
"You have a lovely little town," he huffed, trying to keep up with Lulu's pace. "What I've been able to see at this speed."
Lulu glanced around, and remembered the telegram she never sent. "Just a side trip to the Western Union man."
The gentleman smiled. "Telegraphy, now there's a lost art."
Lulu and her escort stepped into the telegraph office. The dry wind off the desert made the dark office a cool haven.
Jeff stood and removed his visor. "Miss me?" He smiled.
Lulu blushed. She couldn't believe the nerve of the man! And the worst part of it was he was right. She didn't know why she reacted to him that way, but she couldn't deny it. She felt an almost irresistible urge to be near him. She couldn't say that, of course, but she couldn't think of a quick answer either. So she decided to just ignore it.
"I forgot the telegram," she answered coolly.
He nodded, too. "Of course. What shall I write?"
"To the Fort Worth Gazette. 'Ranch for sale'.
Jeff looked up, surprised. "A 'For Sale' advertisement?"
"Yes," Lulu answered, a sad smile on her face. "My dad is going to sell his ranch."
He sobered immediately. He could see that this wasn't easy for her. "But why?" he tentatively asked.
Lulu shrugged her shoulders. "You know … the usual story. Last winter was hard and we lost a lot of cattle. And then a fire destroyed half of our stables. It's just bad luck, I'm afraid. Dad used to have the biggest spread in the county … well, except for Mr. Lucas, of course. He keeps begging Dad to sell him the place. But Dad wanted to try this first. He doesn't like Lucas and he doesn't want to turn our hands into Lucas employees."
Jeff felt for her. He could sense how much this story hurt her. He also wondered briefly about the fire. Could it be … ? Well, he only had seen this Lucas for a minute, but he couldn't help the feeling that his role in the distress of her family wasn't just one of innocent buyer.
"You said there was a fire. How did it start?" Jeff voiced his fears in a manner so that Lulu would not know just where he was leading. She was intelligent, and she could come to her own conclusions, but he had a feeling that it was more than coincidence that the ranch was having trouble at the same time that Lucas was accumulating land.
"No one knows," she answered. "We suspect that a lamp fell from its wire out in one of the horse's stalls, but we don't know for sure."
Jeff looked at her for a moment, hoping she would elaborate, but she did not. He went about the routine of taking down, word-for-word, the information he would need to send the telegraph. He clarified spelling, annotated destination, and double checked the asking price before efficiently calculating the cost.
Lulu sighed as she handed over the money, still saddened by memories of the fire. They had lost several of her favorite horses that night, as well as her childhood hideaway. She regretted the loss of her special place nearly as much as the monetary loss that was forcing her father to sell. Several of the local ranchers and farmers had experienced luck that was far worse than her father's, so she had nearly come to expect that the worst would happen. At first, she had not really considered the bad timing of the fire, but coupled with her investigation into Judd Lucas's other activities, this week things had started falling into place. All she needed was proof.
After paying the fee, she took the opportunity to watch Jeff send the telegraph. He concentrated intently, and she was able to watch him unobserved for several moments. He *was* attractive, she mused. Very attractive. Just as she was beginning to try to think of a way to prolong her time here, the man behind her cleared his throat.
She had forgotten that the strangely dressed man had followed her into the telegraph office, and she was rather embarrassed that her own thoughts had allowed her to ignore him at length while she conducted her business.
"I'm so sorry, sir. I'll take you to see the paper immediately." Lulu blushed slightly as she realized just how rude she had been. "I'm afraid we need to be going," she told Jeff. "I promised this visitor a tour of my paper, and we've already been here for quite some time."
Jeff, having just completed sending her message, looked earnestly into her eyes. "If you're doing a tour, I'd love to accompany you. I've seen some of the larger newspaper offices, but I've never really seen one run on a smaller scale." In truth, he simply wasn't ready to part company with her, but he also wanted to see her office.
"Don't you have to man the office?" she asked him.
"Miss McCoy, I can take breaks," he returned with a smile.
Luisa sighed impatiently. "Please, not Miss McCoy," she requested. "My name is Luisa, but my friends call me Lulu … and I'd like to think we'll be friends."
Jeff smiled. "I'd like that," he told her, and reached for his key to the office that he had laid on the desk when he had entered earlier. He followed behind Lulu and her guest, and wondered what she would have to show him.
"Well Mr. — -?" Lulu hesitated. "I'm sorry. I didn't get your name."
"Oh, how thoughtless of me. My name is Wells … George Wells."
"And you're clearly not from around here. Where are you from? We don't get many strangers visiting Candelero," Lulu asked, suddenly back in her role as editor-in-chief.
"Oh, I'm from back … East," Wells replied cryptically.
"Oh, really? Whereabouts?" Jeff interrupted. "I was raised back East. In Boston to be exact."
"Boston!?" Lulu asked incredulously. "You're a long way from there!" Her attention had shifted back to Jeff. "What brought you out West?" she asked.
Jeff shrugged. "I was looking for something."
"I'm not sure … " he replied hesitantly, "but I think I may have found it."
Lulu gave Jeff a small smile and they continued to chat, essentially ignoring Wells, much to his relief. It would appear that I have timed things perfectly, Wells thought as he watched the young couple walking in front of him.
Wells entered the newspaper office just steps behind them. He looked around making mental notes of everything he saw. He walked around them to where a huge printing press was positioned in the middle of the room. He reached out and touched the apparatus with both hands.
"Oh, my! What a lovely machine you have here, Miss Lulu. I am very envious. I am sure you are quite proud of what it can do."
Lulu came around the machine and positioned herself so she could press the pedal near the floor and pull the lever that operated the large type setter. A large metal plate lifted and revealed a sheet of newsprint attached to it. Removing it carefully from the plate she handed it to Wells.
"Fresh off the press. Here, this one is free of charge," she told him as he took the damp copy of the newspaper. Lulu was anxious to hear what he tought of it. She noticed Jeff was reading over the little man's shoulder and for some reason unbeknownst to her she wanted both of them to like what she had written.
Wells looked over the top of the paper. "Good, this is very good. You have your finger on the pulse of this fair town."
Jeff looked from Wells to Lulu. What he had read had upset him. He tried to hide his feelings of concern from her but they came creeping into his voice. "Lulu, do you think it is wise to print this about Judd Lucas?"
She shook her head at his question and came to stand next to him at the window. Placing a hand on his arm she explained. "Lucas says he is doing the town a favor by wanting to build here, but I get the feeling he's doing more than just building. I wish there was a way to be certain he isn't behind some of our recent problems."
Jefferson looked out the window, a smile playing on his face. Maybe there was a way, he thought.
"If I might intrude," Wells commented. "Being a writer, I'm fascinated by the … what would you call it? Lingo! Yes, lingo. What precisely is a 'jerkwater town'? One of Lucas's assistants used the term."
Lulu raised an eyebrow. "It just means a small town," she shrugged.
Jeff turned from the window. "We call 'em 'tank towns' in Boston."
"And the etymology of the words?"
Lulu patted Wells' shoulder. "Keep using words like that, and I'll hire you as editor."
Jeff folded his arms. "The words come from the same place. Water tanks for the railroad. You jerk a chain to bring the water over to a steam engine."
Lulu nodded. "Or they pull up to the tank and … wait a minute," she said, and hurried to a wall map.
"I knew it!" she said triumphantly.
Jeff shook his head. "Sorry, I don't follow."
She took some pins from her desk and began sticking them in the map, naming property that had been bought up and the other ranches or farms that Lucas badly wanted. "See something odd?"
Jeff's face broke into a large grin. "Now why do suppose a man would buy property in a lateral line?"
"Proof!" Lulu said and threw her arms impetuously around Jeff's neck. He took full advantage of her giddiness and pulled her close. Wells smiled and busied himself reading about the shootout at the OK Corral.
The couple pulled apart. Lulu blushed. "Sorry, I … I got a little excited."
Jeff sighed. "I can honestly say the same, Lulu."
Lulu brushed back her hair, but her face was still flushed. "I think we can go to Sheriff Batholomew with this."
Jeff shook his head. "It's not 'proof', it's a suspicion … a *good* one, but only that."
She folded her arms. "Do you have a better idea, Western Union man?"
"As a matter of fact … "
"It's beautiful," Lulu said breathlessly. "You're above the world up here, Jeff."
He smiled; his 'hideaway' meant a lot more through her eyes. "I came back here after I finished my schooling back East. It was the land of my father's people."
Lulu smiled a crooked smile. "An Indian goes to Harvard, hmm?"
His answering grin was wry. "Well, Princeton, actually — it was farther away from my relatives." Then he shrugged. "Two different worlds, and I never really fit into either one."
"I think I know how you feel … a little. I was left on my parents' doorstep as a baby … I always wondered where I belonged."
He nodded. "It's the not knowing — "
" — that kills you," she whispered.
Jeff's heart pounded. "Maybe two misfits … belong together," he said, his voice soft and low.
Their faces came close together when suddenly they heard a loud 'crash' behind them. Jeff turned and drew his revolver so fast it cut a long piece of sawgrass clean in half. Wells raised his trembling hands.
"My apologies," Wells said. "I was rummaging through this old wagon. There's a nice bit of silk here. It says "Pikes Peak or Bust" on one side and "Busted by God" on the other." He shook his head. "I guess their journey wasn't succesful."
Jeff looked at the man standing beside the battered, broken down wagon. "What are you doing here?"
Wells cleared his throat. "Well, my boy, I followed … you both … up here."
"Followed us? Why wou — "
Lulu jumped in before Jeff could finish. "Why would you follow us up here? What would you have to gain by doing so?" Her eyes narrowed. "Who are you really?"
Knowing full well what kind of spitfire he was dealing with, but also not sure of what to tell Lulu or Jeff, Wells decided to see what help he could be without revealing his true self and reason for being there.
"I really am George Wells, Miss Lulu, I assure you. I'm a traveller … and … ," he thought fast, " … I 've heard rumors. Rumors about your Mr. Lucas."
"Oh really?" Lulu was still suspicious, but she was willing to hear him out. Jeff kept his own counsel.
"Yes, oh yes, indeed," Wells continued, warming up to his story. "I was in Fort Worth earlier, and I knew a man in the railroad business. He had gotten certain … communications … from Mr. Lucas. Inquiries as to where exactly new rail lines would be laid."
"So then you're here to check it out?" Lulu asked eagerly.
"Oh, no, no, no, Miss Lulu, nothing of the kind." Wells fingered his glasses nervously. "Purely informal, I assure you."
"Well, still, it's another clue," Lulu summed up, suspicions forgotten.
"But it's still not proof," Jeff reminded her. He had a shrewd notion that Wells was not telling them the truth … but he couldn't believe that the little man meant them harm. He'd keep an eye on the man, but on the whole he was inclined to trust him.
"Yes, well, as to that … when I was, ahem, talking to some of Mr. Lucas's … associates?" He smiled at the incongruity of such a refined word for such uncouth louts, and his listeners smiled back.
"What happened?" Jeff prompted.
"Well, you see, they were talking rather freely, as they hadn't yet seen me, and they mentioned a Bartholomew ranch? A … calving barn?"
Lulu paled. "Sheriff Bartholomew's place? He's *that* sure of himself?"
Jeff shook his head. "Until today, no one had any idea he was up to anything, Lulu. He's gotten away with everything, why not continue?"
"But, but … there are still calves in that barn! If they're killed, the sheriff will be wiped out! And his wife … " suddenly she stopped, and blushed. "Well, I don't like to be missish, but they say his wife is, um, expecting … he can't afford to start all over!"
"Well, we'll have to do something," Jeff answered, not quite sure what he had in mind. "But they'll never believe us if we accuse him, you know that."
"Well, we'll just have to do something else, then," Lulu replied suddenly.
Wells sat back, forgotten, as this legendary pair began yet another lifetime of plotting.
"First thing is, we have to stop them. I can probably do that," Jeff suggested, thinking out loud. "If I ride over there tonight … "
"Wait," Lulu spoke up, suddenly having second thoughts. "What if there are lots of them? I don't want you to get hurt … "
"Thank you, Lulu." Jeff smiled down at her, and then twisted his face, thinking. "You know … I appreciate that you want me to call you by your nickname, but such a beautiful woman deserves a beautiful name … " He caressed her cheek, and she smiled, blushing furiously. "I think I'll call you Luisa."
"Okay," she whispered, touched.
"Yes, Luisa," he teased gently. "And as for not getting hurt, well … " he thought furiously for a moment, without any visible result.
"I've got it!" Lulu burst out suddenly. "I've got it — they won't know it's you, because you'll be wearing a mask."
"A mask? Why a mask?"
Lulu smacked him in the chest. "So that you can spy on them, of course, and report back with all the details, and they won't know it's you, and … "
Jeff placed a hand over her mouth. "Hold it. Do you always babble like this when you're excited?"
Lulu blushed and forgot what she had been about to say. A part of her wished it was his lips and not his hand on her mouth. She blushed even more. Where had that thought come from?
Jeff removed his hand. "You know, that's not such a bad idea. I'll keep watch at the sheriff's place tonight and stop them if they try anything. If they see me, they won't know who I am, and I'll be free to do it as many times as necessary. But I don't need to wear a mask. I'll just take off my glasses and dress like a cowboy."
Lulu looked doubtful. "Don't you think they'll recognize you?"
Jeff grinned at her. "Trust me."
Lulu nodded. "All right, but I'm going, too."
Jeff's eyebrows crawled into his hairline. "Over my dead body. It could be dangerous."
Wells chuckled to himself. Some things never changed. They would probably be having the same argument in whatever bodies they were occupying in the year 3000.
"I will not let you tell me what to do," Lulu said firmly.
Jeff sighed, and tried to think of a diplomatic argument to deal with the determined woman. He considered a direct assault, but decided against it. Then he considered trying to trick her, but he found that lying to her was not an appealing thought. He had always believed in honesty; it was the core of his personality. Besides, she seemed too intelligent to fall for a simple distraction.
Finally, he settled on a stipulated agreement. "You can come," he told her, "but you will not leave my side."
Lulu looked at him, urging him to continue. "Go on … "
He sighed once more and tried to explain himself to the woman who looked as if she wanted to argue with him. "I need to be on guard, and I don't want to worry about shooting you by mistake."
Lulu considered the wisdom of the statement, and decided that he was probably right. She had no desire to be shot, and he had already demonstrated once how quickly he could draw and aim his gun. Also, she could think of worse people to be with. . They had planned to spend the evening together, this would simply change the location. "Fine," she told him. "Let's get you changed." Lulu found herself looking forward to the idea of seeing him dressed as a cowboy.
Jeff turned around again and looked over his shoulder at his image in the mirror. "Are you sure they should be this tight?" he asked her.
Lulu swallowed tightly, and finally moistened her mouth enough to respond. "They look fine, Jeff. You don't want them falling off." She found it difficult to tear her eyes away from his form. He looked *really* good in the snug denim. Her mother had let the borrowed jeans out somewhat, but they were still a tad snug. One of the ranch hands had willingly donated the jeans, but he was significantly smaller than Jeff. There had been sufficient material to lengthen them, but that had been the best that Hattie could do on short notice.
She finally drew her eyes from his derriere and looked up into the eyes of her adoptive mother. "What do you think?" she asked.
"I think," Hattie replied, "that no one will be looking at his face." With a tiny giggle she left the room so that the couple could talk.
Lulu looked up and met Jeff's eyes. He was smiling slightly as he told her, "I guess that's a good thing, huh?"
Lulu smiled back. "Are you sure you wouldn't rather have a bite to eat first? I promised you supper." She was a little disappointed that their evening plans had been ruined, but she could tell by the look in his eyes that he was not going to give in.
"I don't think we have that much time."
Lulu sighed. He was right. If a single calf was lost to this villain, she would never be able to forgive herself. They had to do this. She adjusted her own jeans and put on the hat that belonged to her father. It was impractical to go out spying in a dress, and this seemed the best solution. "Let's go," she told him, moving to the door.
"One minute, " he replied. He stepped toward her, and gently raised his palm to her cheek. He gazed into her eyes for a moment, then used his other hand to remove the hat. Quickly, before he could lose his nerve, he bent down and placed a tiny kiss on her cheek. He replaced her hat as he straightened. "For luck," he explained, and left the room.
She stood stunned for a moment, then shook herself slightly and followed him.
As they headed out the door of the McCoy ranch house, they met Micah McCoy, Lulu's father. He was standing on the porch squinting at something in the distance.
"What is it, Dad?" Luisa asked.
"Looks like company's coming," Micah replied as he watched the cloud of dust on the horizon. "You two had better get back inside quick."
Jeff and Luisa nodded and got inside the house just moments before Judd Lucas and a group of his men rode up on the property.
"Evening, Micah," Judd said as he rode up to the white picket fence and dismounted.
"Evening, Judd. You're a little far from home, aren't you? What brings you out this way?"
"Some of my men told me that there were strangers in town. Lot of suspicious things have been happening. I just thought I'd ride on out and see how you and your family were doing." Lucas's tone was affable, but the coldness never left his eyes and his smile was tight.
"Well, that's mighty neighborly of you, Judd. But I think I can take care of myself and my family."
"I'm sure of that Micah, I was just offering to help. How are Hattie and Lulu?"
"I saw Lulu in town today. You know a girl that pretty and spirited is rare in these parts. Don't you think it's about time she settled down?"
"I think my daughter is quite capable of making up her own mind about that," Hattie said as she joined Micah on the porch.
Judd looked at the older couple standing side-by-side on the front porch. Everyone in Dry Creek County knew they were a couple united in protecting and sometimes defending their daughter's behavior. The Lord above knew they had enough practice doing both in the past. They loved their daughter with every fiber of their beings and it showed, now more than ever. Looking down onto Judd from the vantage point of the high porch they were not prepared for his next statement.
"Well, I thought I'd just let you both know now, I am interested in courting your daughter and expect to be marrying her later this summer. She's just the woman to give me the sons I have always wanted. Micah, I know you and Hattie will give me your permission and blessing."
It galled him to have to look up to anyone and now was no exception. He arrogantly did not wait for their answer but was turning to leave when they heard a noise coming from the house. The older couple chose to ignore it with a side look to each other but Judd spoke up.
"Did you hear that noise?"
"No! We didn't hear a noise. Noooo noise at all," they both replied together.
Behind the front door both Lulu and Jeff could hear everything that was being said on the porch. Lulu could not believe her ears. She was shocked and couldn't help but feel insulted at Judd's delivery of his intentions towards her. She could feel her anger rise at his insolence.
"How dare he think I would start courting him! If only I could get my hands on a gun I would run that no-account off this place!"
Jeff was stunned silent by Judd's declaration and he paid little attention to what Lulu had just said.
Lulu glanced around the room and saw her mother's sewing basket sitting close by. Quicker than greased lightning she moved for the handgun she knew Mother always kept in there. Jeff saw her reach into the basket. Her hand lingered momentarily on the brown handle of the gun.
Moving next to her he placed one of his arms around her from behind holding her in check. He could sense her anger growing and that it was about to erupt. A meeker man would have released her and cowered away, but Jeff put his other hand over her mouth to keep her silent. As she felt his arms engulf her she started to jerk and twist from his confining embrace. He was startled by the strength of this petitewildcat he held in his arms. Arching her back she managed to loosen his hold just enough to kick over a small stool. The noise of the stool hitting the floor was just the diversion she needed to move her head to the side. The hand which was placed over her mouth slipped down to her upper chest.
"You can let go of me now. I'm not going to shoot that no-good son of a Jezebel," she hissed.
Jeff placed his mouth next to her ear as his arms tightened their hold and softly whispered, "Temper, temper. You're supposed to be a lady." Lulu could sense his laughter. She tried to break free, but his steely hold only became tighter. "Remind me never to tell your parents of what my intentions might be. If this is your reaction to a man asking for permission to court you, I think perhaps we'll elope and skip all the formal courting rituals."
Lulu was shocked at her reaction.
She turned and grabbed Jeff by the front of his shirt. Standing on tiptoe, she planted a hard kiss on his mouth and then pushed him slightly as she let go. Off balance, in more ways than one, Jeff fell against the wall. Luisa was running for the back door. "Race ya to the stable!"
Jeff straightened his hat. "Whoa," he whispered.
He stepped out to the back porch. His wildcat partner was making a mad dash for the stable, her hair flying free like a defiant flag as she ran. He shook his head in admiration. He looked around and noticed Lucas was no longer in sight, having delivered his 'proposal' and made a hasty retreat.
Jeff placed two fingers in his mouth and gave a short whistle. A large palomino came galloping from a small arroyo. Jeff mounted the horse on the gallop, and then as he neared Lulu, scooped her up with one arm, and placed her behind him. He enjoyed the feel of her arms tightening around his waist, as the 'pickup' had taken her by complete surprise.
Removing her hat, Lulu swatted the horse's flank, increasing the speed and the necessity for an even tighter hold. She laughed aloud as they seemed to fly. His horse must be descended from Pegasus — it had wings. No, she sighed, it was her heart that had wings.
She'd never felt so foolishly brave in her life. She knew somehow that nothing could hurt her. Nothing could stop her … as long as Jeff was with her. She wouldn't tell him that, likely the very notion would scare him to death, but she sensed the truth of it.
Jeff wished the Bartholomew place was much further away. He didn't want their ride together to end, but soon they approached the small farmhouse. It was modest, befitting an *honest* sheriff's income, but handsomely laid out. Jeff tugged back on the reins, slowing his horse to a walk.
"Now what?" Lulu whispered, her voice so invitingly close to his ear.
"We wait … and watch," he said, and then smiled. "I guess. I really don't have a clue. This disguise business is new to me."
As soon as the horse stopped, Luisa dismounted and removed the bedroll behind the cantle. She untied the leather thong and unfurled the bedroll and seated herself. She patted a spot next to her. "Then let's wait and watch."
They settled in on the bedroll, waiting for something to happen. Jeff felt daring enough to put an arm around Luisa, and she didn't protest. She was feeling happier than she could ever remember being. She had no idea why she should feel so close to this particular man. She'd only met him this morning, for Pete's sake, and yet … she felt as if she'd known him forever. She smiled up at him sassily. "You think we should skip the courting stuff, eh?"
"Well… " Jeff temporized, trying to read her face in the dying light. "I'm a pretty straightforward kind of guy."
"Oh, I can see that," she teased, poking at his 'disguise'. "But that doesn't let you out of courting me. I expect the full treatment."
Jeff smiled down at her, his heart overflowing with emotion. His entire life up until this morning now seemed unbearably bleak — how had he ever lived without her? And to find her, and to know that she wanted him to court her … it was almost too much happiness for one man to bear.
He leaned down to kiss her … but abruptly pulled his head upwards again, peering off into the distance. "I think I can hear them coming … "
They scrambled to their feet and found a handy bush to hide behind. Within a few minutes, two riders pulled up near the barn. It was hard to make them out in the dusk, but Lulu was certain of one thing. "Neither of them are the sheriff," she informed her new partner, "and last I heard, he didn't have any hired hands. These," she concluded, "are bad guys."
"Good thing I've got you along," he murmured absently, planning his assault.
The two henchmen dismounted near the barn, and rummaged in their saddlebags. After a moment, they stepped away from the horses, with several small bundles in hand. They approached the barn and busied themselves near the back wall.
"I bet they're working on setting the barn on fire," Lulu muttered darkly. "We've got to stop them, fast."
"Okay, here's the plan," Jeff replied. "I'll get back on the horse and confront them; I've got a gun, and the sun will be at my back, so they'll have a harder time seeing."
Lulu considered it, and nodded. "Good plan. While you're doing that, I'll scatter their horses, so they can't get away. See you when you're done!"
Before he could do more than utter a protesting "Luisa!" she'd gone, slipping away around the far side of the barn. Shaking his head, he remounted. The best thing he could do now would be to capture the bad guys before they had a chance to hurt her.
Things went exactly as Jeff had planned. Mostly, he realized, because they weren't expecting any opposition. Judd Lucas was used to getting his way around these parts. The would-be arsonists were caught red-handed, all the commotion bringing the sheriff outside, away from his dinner table. With their horses galloping away, and a pair of purposeful guns pointing at them, they had to surrender.
Sheriff Bartholomew tried to look up into the face of the unknown gunman who had just saved his farm, but he couldn't see clearly because the last rays of the sun were in his eyes. "Thank you, stranger. I really appreciate your help, Mr… ?"
Jeff froze. He hadn't anticipated needing another name to go with his new outfit. "Huh … I'm … a friend," he replied lamely. Deciding that it had been easier to face those two criminals than it was to look the honest sheriff in the eye, he whirled his horse around and headed back into the woods … he needed to talk to Luisa about this.
He found her waiting for him in the small clearing where they'd sat earlier. She was practically jumping up and down with excitement. "Did you see what we did back there? We were great! We were super!"
Jeff couldn't help but laugh at her enthusiasm, as he reached down to give her hand up behind him. "Yes, we did just fine back there." He felt her wrap her arms around his waist and took a moment to place one of his hands lightly on hers. As far as he was concerned, *this* was the best part of the evening so far.
"What did the sheriff say to you back there? I couldn't hear from back here."
"Oh, just that he was grateful for the help." Jeff paused, then added, "He wanted to know my name, and I didn't know what to say."
"Oh, yeah, we should have thought of that. You'll need a name for your disguise."
They rode in silence for a while, heading for Luisa's home, each thinking of, and rejecting several names.
"How about," she said finally, "how about … Lone Rider."
He thought about it for a minute and decided that it sounded pretty good. Besides, *she* had thought of it, so it couldn't be all bad. "Okay," he agreed, "Lone Rider, it is. Thank you, Luisa."
He pulled on the reins, bringing the horse to a halt, then turned in the saddle a bit so he could kiss her … not a long kiss, but a nice kiss. A kiss which said, he hoped, that he was falling for her.
Lulu held him tightly, enjoying this far too much, and not caring one little bit that people would say it was happening too fast. She'd always been the kind of girl who knew her own mind. And this Jefferson Higheagle was something special, she just knew it.
She laid her head against his strong back all the way home, wishing that she lived much farther away.
Wells sat in the saloon, keeping an eye on Judd Lucas. He had seen two of Lucas's thugs leave a couple of hours ago, but a couple more of them had gotten bored and were turning their attention in his direction.
"Hey. There's that thar tenderfoot again. Let's have some fun," one of them bellowed.
Wells shrank back in his seat. "Oh, dear," he stuttered as the goon lifted him up by the front of his jacket.
Just then, the door of the saloon crashed open and Lulu rushed in, followed by Jeff, now back in his telegraph operator outfit.
"Mr. Wells, guess what!" she shouted before noticing his predicament. "Hey, you, let go of my friend."
The goon dropped Wells and turned to leer at Lulu. "Do you want to take his place, little lady?" He started to grab her, but a second later found himself on the floor clutching a very tender part as she stood over him.
Jeff laughed. "I guess you *don't* need taking care of, Luisa."
Wells smiled. There was no doubt about it, these two were well on the way to creating a legendary partnership.
In the days that followed, the Lone Rider (with the help of his Luisa, of course) began to loosen the grip of Judd Lucas and his men on the good citizens of Dry Creek County. Barn burnings were stopped, rustlers and horse thieves nabbed and bit by bit they began to piece together the evidence that pointed to Lucas. But so far the case against him was just circumstantial and none of the men they captured were willing to talk.
"It could take years to bring that man to justice," Lulu said with frustration as she sat with her parents, Jeff, and Wells at the McCoy dinner table about ten days after the Lone Rider had made his first appearance.
Jeff nodded in agreement. "There has to be a way to get real evidence against him. Something that would stand up in court."
"Or," Lulu said with a gleam in her eye, "maybe we could force his hand, make him slip up."
"Lu-i-sa," Jeff said warily. "What exactly do you have in mind?"
Lucas paced his parlor like a caged animal. In the last two weeks he'd begun to see his small empire start to crumble. The men he hired to be at his evil beck and call were being arrested faster than he could hire new ones. He picked up the papers that were lying on his desk and threw them at the two remaining henchmen in his power. Fear is what kept them standing in the center of the room. Fear of what this madman might do if the two of them turned and left.
"All of my plans have been ruined," he ranted. "Somehow that Lone Rider has foiled every one of them and he has had the sheriff nearby to arrest anyone involved in my attempts to take control of Candelero."
He began to laugh a wicked crazed laugh. He had one last trick up his sleeve. He only needed the McCoy ranch to control the entire right of way for the new railroad line coming outside of town. He had to have the land at any cost. He didn't care who had to be sacrificed to get that piece of ground. Judd stood in front of his two men. The smell of liquor and beans emitting from their bodies sickened him but the thoughts of losing sickened him even more.
"You are to get me that ranch," he screamed into their faces.
"Yes sir, Mr. Lucas, we hear what you is a-sayin'," the taller of the two said as they backed out of the parlor. They ran for their horses and rode away to parts unknown.
Hours later Lucas realized he was alone in his fight for control. He went to the gun cabinet and calmly removed his rifle and his gun and holster. He was going out to the McCoy ranch to get what he wanted or he wasn't going to come back at all.
Jeff closed his eyes as he listened to the strange Mr. Wells weave tales of Leonardo da Vinci. Jeff figured Wells would be a good writer since he managed to make everything sound as if he'd actually been back there in those days. Maybe Jeff was just feeling very romantic these days. At least Wells had promised to depart when Luisa showed up. She had promised meet him here up here at his special place to discuss her plan for trapping Judd Lucas once and for all. He sighed. It was probably something guaranteed to get her killed.
As one hour lapsed into two, Jeff became restless. It wasn't like Luisa to be late. She was usually the one who had to chide him for tardiness. He finally moved towards his horse. "Something's wrong … I feel it."
Before Wells could reply, Sheriff Bartholomew's wife appeared over the rise of the plateau. She was out of breath, her face streaked with tears. She practically collapsed in Jeff's arms. Wells hurried over and began fanning the young woman with his bowler hat. "Oh, dear."
Jeff cradled her face. "You shouldn't have made this climb, Mellie. Is Tim all right?"
"Tim … Lulu," she struggled to speak.
Jeff's blood froze. "Luisa? What happened?"
Wells reached over and retrieved a canteen. He soaked his hankerchief and dabbed at Mellie's face. Her eyes opened wide. "Lucas has her! He's at her home. He's out of his mind, Jeff!"
"Mr. Wells, take care of her, I'll ride down — "
"No!" Mellie shouted. "He's watching every window, you'll be shot on sight … like Tim."
"Tim? Mellie, I'm so sorry, is he — "
"I don't know," she sobbed, her tears starting anew. "No one can get close enough to find out."
"God," Jeff whispered. "If I lose her … "
Mellie touched his face. "The reverend is there. Maybe he can stop Lucas."
"Or buy time until dark," Jeff said. "It's the only shot I have to get the upper hand."
Wells cleared his throat. "Not your *only* shot. That is if you prefer not to risk all the hours until sunset on Lucas' rather fragile grasp of reality."
"I love poker, don't you?" Lucas said with a madman's grin. "I'm a civilized man," he continued, scraping the rifle sight absentmindedly against his forehead. Hattie and her husband shared frightened glances. Micah glanced at his cards. He was playing poker with the devil, and Lulu was the table stake.
Reverend LeBlanc regarded his hand calmly. Not liking what he saw, he dabbed at his face with a napkin from the table, palmed a better hand from his vest pocket, and made a bet.
LeBlanc was careful with his double-dealing and cold decks to make sure that he and Lucas stayed fairly even. He needed to play for Miss Lulu's life, and stall till the cavalry arrived. If they ever did. It was 5 card draw, but it felt for all the world like 'cat and mouse' as the hours stretched on.
"You're not serious," Mellie said as she saw Jeff trussed up in the odd harness.
"It will work, my dear," Wells soothed, "but he will be enslaved by the prevailing wind."
"But that's the silk cover from that old wagon!"
Wells squared his shoulders. "Silk made … er will make a fine parachute, my dear."
Jeff rubbed a hand across the saddlebag attached to his stomach. "I just pull this stirrup?"
"Yes, my boy. You leap clear of the canyon. count to ten … " Wells looked over the edge, " … you count to five … and pull the stirrup. Then shout 'Geronimo!"
Jeff nodded with confidence. If Geronimo had done this, so could he. Without looking back, Jeff ran for the edge and leaped.
The rush of air momentarily took his breath away. He was falling fast and began to tumble end over end. He frantically felt for the stirrup. His fingers finally folded around the metal. He no longer knew which way was up. "Damn, I forgot to count. Five!" He pulled the stirrup.
There was a sudden rough 'yank' tugging him upward. He was like a marionette on strings. He looked above his head as the canopy of the old silk mushroomed above him.
Jeff suddenly began to enjoy the floating sensation. He was an eagle. His father had foretold this, or so some of his people had told him. What would his grandparents in Boston think? He shook his head and refocused. "Luisa," he whispered and looked at the approaching outskirts of Candelero.
There it was, the McCoy ranchhouse. He was nearing it rapidly. Unfortunately the wind was not cooperating and he would overshoot the target. Just as he thought he was about to land in the barnyard, the silk snagged itself on the weathervane. He was pulled back hard, and smacked against the wall.
He truly was a puppet now, a helpless one dangling next to the roof.
Lucas leaped up from his seat. "A little too early for Santa Claus," he smiled, and looked out the window. Seeing nothing but the body of Sheriff Bartholomew, he went to the back window. Nothing.
He re-entered the living room. His guests, tied to their chairs, were still in place. He glanced out the front window again, but did a doubletake. The sheriff was gone.
"Where is he!?" Lucas hissed through his teeth.
"Who?" Micah asked innocently.
"The sheriff, you idiot! He was there, and now he's gone!"
A pale young man leaned in the parlor doorway. "Right here, Lucas," Bartholomew said.
Lucas wheeled around, but didn't even have a chance to cock the lever. He was dead before his body hit the floor. Jeff stood up from behind Micah's chair, his Peacemaker still smoking.
Jeff holstered his gun and began untying the 'poker players'.
Reverend LeBlanc shook his head as he picked up Lucas' cards. "Aces over eights. The dead man's hand."
"Now I remember you!" Jeff smiled as Lulu hugged him tight. "You were — " The Reverend shifted his eyes. "You were … the reverend I met on a riverboat once." Jeff looked at the cards and felt a chill run down his spine. "The same cards Hickok was holding when he was bushwhacked."
LeBlanc shook his head and sighed, "My, my, what an eerie coincidence." He winked at Jeff, grabbed his hat, and bid his company adieu.
Jeff smiled down at Lulu. "I think things are going to be a lot better in Candelero from now on."
Hattie nodded. "I saw a new mercantile going up. It's owned by Tempus Tex Ltd. I might finally have a place for reasonably priced calico."
Sometime later, the McCoy homestead was quiet once more. Judd Lucas' s body had been removed, and Jeff had left to take Sheriff Bartholomew to where his wife and Mr.Wells were waiting anxiously for good news.
In the kitchen, preparing dinner, Hattie watched out the window as her daughter kissed Jeff Higheagle goodbye. They had seen a lot of Jeff in the past few weeks, and they liked him. One concern, however, remained, and at Hattie's silent prompting, Micah brought up the topic over dessert.
"Lulu, about this young man of yours … "
"Yes, Dad?" Her reply was a model of decorum, but her gaze was challenging.
"Well, it's just … your mother and I … we're a mite concerned."
"Oh, you mean the Lone Rider — no need to worry." Luisa reassured them airily. "Judd Lucas is gone, so we won't have to bother with that disguise any more."
"I'm relieved to hear that," her father replied, unimpressed, "but that wasn't our concern." He looked over at his wife, at a loss for words.
Hattie took up the baton. "It's just that, well, Jeff is … well, he's a fine man, no doubt, but he is a half-breed Indian." There, now it was out in the open. "For ourselves, we don't mind, truly. It's just what other people might think."
"And, more importantly, what other people might do," Micah concluded. "People can be cruel. Are you sure you know what you're getting into?"
"You're not serious. After all he did today? He saved the ranch — he saved my life!"
"We know, and we're grateful," Hattie replied. "But that's not the point."
Luisa looked rebelliously from one parent to the other, but the compassion in their eyes stopped any further outbursts. "It doesn't make any difference," she finally stated quietly. "I lo — " she stopped abruptly. She and Jeff had briefly discussed a courtship, but no declarations had passed between them. Nevertheless, she knew how she felt. "I love him. I'd feel just the same if he were … " she paused, looking for the most outrageous comparison she could find, " … if he were from another planet!"
Her parents smiled at the absurdity of that comment, and the tension in the room was lessened. "It could be a problem, though," Micah persevered.
"Well, we could always move back East," Luisa speculated, feeling her way through new ideas. "Jeff grew up in Boston, and he says they don't care so much about Indian blood there. In fact," she smiled, warming up to the idea, "there's this paper I've heard about, in Metropolis. We could try working there."
Hattie regarded her stubborn daughter for a moment, then sighed. She didn't believe that folks back East were quite that free of prejudice, but Jeff had lived there; they could discuss it with him, if things progressed that far. "If Jeff is who you want, honey, we'll support you in that; we'll figure out something."
"But we have to handle this carefully," Micah insisted. "Right now, folks think you've got a hankering for the Lone Rider, and he's a pretty popular man. P'raps we could let that illusion stand for a bit — just until the townsfolk get to know Jeff more, to see what a fine man he is."
Luisa looked at her father, incredulous. "So I can be seen with the Lone Rider, but I'm supposed to just treat Jeff like a friend? That's ridiculous!"
"It's temporary," he replied, unruffled. "When Jeff wants to court you seriously, *if* he does, then we'll shift things around then."
Luisa rolled her eyes at this exaggerated notion, but kept her peace. At least they weren't trying to forbid her to see him. "All right, fine. We'll be cautious. But not for too long! And now, if you'll excuse me," she rose from the table and placed her napkin next to her empty plate. "I told Jeff I'd meet him after supper." She smiled brilliantly on her way out the door. "I wouldn't want to be late — my destiny awaits me!"
Jeff and Wells walked out of the small house in Candelero where they had dropped the sheriff and his wife. Doc Bernard had assured them that both would be fine. Jeff hopped up onto the seat of the buckboard he had borrowed from Micah to transport Tim and Mellie, and looked down at the man who had been so vital to the successful outcome of the day's events. Wells was standing beside the horse he had hired to use during his stay, but making no effort to mount.
Jeff grinned. "Would you like to ride back out to the McCoy place, Mr.Wells, or tie your horse behind with mine, and go in the wagon? It's been quite a day and you look a little … frazzled."
Wells shook his head, and smiled a bit regretfully. "No, my boy, my stay here in Candelero is at an end. It's been a pleasure meeting you all, and please send my sincerest thanks to Mr. and Mrs. McCoy for all their hospitality. I regret my rudeness in not making a proper farewell to them and Miss Lulu, but time waits for no man, you know."
Jeff looked puzzled. "You're leaving? Now? But how? It's almost dark, and there's no stage due till in the morning."
"I have my ways," Wells said, and rested one hand on his watch pocket. He held out his other hand to Jeff who took it and shook it firmly, then added with a twinkle in his eye, "Perhaps I'll be back this way again … someday. Until then, good luck to you, and congratulations on finding your … life's partner."
Jeff smiled a little self-consciously, but didn't deny it. "Good luck to you, Mr.Wells. And thank you for … everything."
Wells stepped back to watch as Jeff pulled away in a cloud of dust. As soon as the wagon was out of sight, he glanced around and then drew his watch from its pocket. He rubbed his aching behind. "Give me a good English saddle any day," he said with a rueful chuckle, and with a rushing sensation, the Soul Tracker took him back to his study in London.
Jeff returned the buckboard to the McCoy stables as quickly as the horses would travel, eager to see Luisa once more, to really be sure she was unharmed. If he had lost her … but he hadn't, so he needn't think about how empty his life would be without her.
As he unhitched the horses and turned them over to the McCoy's stable hand, he caught sight of Luisa watching him from the corner of the stable. He smiled in her direction, and she moved forwards.
"Hello, Jeff," she greeted him, rather breathlessly.
"Hello, Luisa," he replied, not quite self-confident enough to greet her with a kiss, not in front of her hired help, anyway. Inspiration struck. "Would you like to ride with me? We could watch the sunset from the plateau … "
Luisa glanced out into the gathering darkness and smiled impishly. "But the sun's set already."
"Hmm, we'll just have to find something else to watch, then."
She laughed throatily and nodded agreement. Jeff's body responded instinctively, and he turned away to hide his reaction, busying himself with preparing his palomino for an evening's ride. Once again, they double-mounted the horse and headed for his — no, their — special place.
There was a full moon that night, bathing the prairie in a romantic wash of silver. The stars seemed brighter and closer than usual, and Venus was especially bright in the Western sky. Jeff and Luisa sat on an old blanket near the abandoned wagon.
"Are you cold?" Jeff asked hesitantly.
"A little," Luisa admitted, moving just a bit closer to him. He responded as she'd hoped he would, putting his arm around her. They savored the closeness and the view for a few moments in silence.
"Are you okay? I mean, after today? You seem a little … subdued."
She played with a blade of grass. "I'm fine, really. It was scary, but I just knew you'd save me, somehow. Although," she added, with more of her usual spirit, "I was working on a few plans of my own, just in case."
Jeff squeezed her shoulders, reassuring both her and himself that the ordeal was over.
"But that's not really what's bothering me," she continued after a moment, surprising him. Hesitantly, she recounted her dinner table conversation with her parents.
Jeff sighed. "Luisa, they've got a point. Not everyone accepts me. One of my own cousins, back in Boston, still acts as if I might, at any moment, break into a war dance, right there in the parlor."
Luisa stifled a grin at that image, momentarily distracted from her dilemma.
"Being m — ," Jeff bit back the word 'married'; he hadn't the right, "seen with me could get you in trouble," he concluded sadly. This time with her had been wonderful, but he should have known it wouldn't last.
Luisa pulled back and looked him square in the eye. "Thomas Jefferson Higheagle, if you think you can be rid of me that easily, you've got another thought coming." Warming to her subject, she stood, lecturing him. "I've run my own newspaper when no one thought a woman could, I've run my own life, and, for your information, I'll marry whomever I please, even if he is half-Indian!"
Jeff blinked up at the love of his life, and had to smile at her vehemence. Apparently he wouldn't be giving her up for her own good, after all.
She scowled back at him. "What's so funny?" she snapped.
His smile widened as he got to his feet. "I love you, too."
She stared at him for a moment, then realized what she'd just said, and blushed furiously. Jeff stepped over to her and enfolded her in a big hug, then pulled back just far enough to kiss her. It was the sort of kiss he'd dreamed about often since he'd met her, a kiss that was deep and long and expressed all the passion in his soul. When they finally separated, they were both flushed and breathing heavily.
"Oh my," Luisa uttered faintly.
"Oh yes," Jeff agreed, feeling supremely self-confident. Luisa, in his arms, looked up at him dreamily, then smiled and kissed him back.
A long moment later they disengaged once more, but didn't go far. They regarded each other contentedly. "So you'll be the Lone Rider's girl?" Jeff asked, teasingly.
"For now, I suppose," Luisa sassed. "But only until we get the townfolk to appreciate their mild-mannered telegraph operator. Then I'm dumping the Lone Rider like *that*." She snapped her fingers to illustrate.
"And then you'll marry the telegraph operator?" Jeff asked, his heart in his eyes.
She smiled back. "No power on earth could stop me."
" … as I reflect now on my journeys in time, I marvel anew at the tangled progression of events shaping the lives of these two special souls. That Jeff and Luisa's immediate future was for me a past adventure whose outcome was crucial not only to their happiness but to the happiness of lovers yet unborn is a concept I must accept yet cannot truly comprehend. But no matter. The truth in all that has occurred or will come to be is one of the heart, not the intellect, and I am content that it be so."
Wells closed his journal with a sigh of satisfaction mixed with weariness. Looking down, he frowned at the Texas dust that had sifted from his clothing to the desk and the carpet around his chair. No matter how extraordinary life becomes, he thought with a chuckle some things are eternal. I need a hot bath, a good meal, and a night's sleep. And locking away his journal, he left the study.